I read a lot about the 2009 World Habitat Award laureate Caprichando a Morada before visiting and facilitating the International Study Visit on the various sites of the project. Nothing I read about family agriculture made me understand what its stands for as strongly as when I met the young social project planners of the COOPERHAF team in Chapecó. Young and idealistic –yes. But also strongly grounded to their land and background.
Exploring the South of Brazil is a very different experience to visiting the luxuriously green Rio de Janeiro or the wild urban Saõ Paulo. Santa Catarina is a rough jewel in its own rights. Florianopolis is the wealthy model of colonial architecture crowned in the paradisiacal landscape that once was home of the noble savage and now the very sought after undiscovered vacation and surfing location. It is also the last bastion of the original Portuguese colonisation as fortresses stand elevated, previously preventing invasions by the Spanish and the Dutch. An hour by plane away from Florianopolis is Chapecó. The scene is more authentic and simple although the contrast between the European looking population is striking with the lavish abundance of sun and vegetation. Most dwellers are indeed direct descendants of Polish, Dutch and Italian settlers and since the creation of the town in the early 1900s, the historic bond is still palpable. Agricultural landscapes have also the same European geography in Santa Catarina, Parana and Rio Grande do Sul, drawn with the same hedges you would find in Germany.
One major difference though is the dilapidated state of the family farmers’ houses scattered in the green and prosperous scenery, often erected on a rudimentary wooden structure permeable to the winds and rains. Rural housing is not considered a priority anywhere in Latin America, anywhere at all –I shall say. Yet it is difficult to imagine a business doing well if the family lives in insalubrious conditions and vice versa. Family agriculture (agricultura familiar) is the predominant scheme of production in this Southern region but also in the North and North East of Brazil, the latest two being lands of the Agrarian Reform settlers and of fishermen. The family nucleon is the unit of production, both very solid as it lies on mutual aid and very vulnerable economically. Challenges for this production model are diverse according to the region. Whilst in the North, families are faced with huge distances to market their goods and rarefaction of available land to expand their production, in the South, commercialisation of products is undermined by the concurrence allowed through MERCOSUR. This is a hard context for families to retain their youth and prevent rural exodus.This is the context in which emerged COOPERHAF(Cooperative of Habitat for Family Farmers). Their monstrous mobilisation work through which –unlike other Latin American cooperatives, they promoted legislatively and commercially a socially just model of house provision struck me. Mistrust, obstructive land policies, lack of funds, limited interaction between leadership and cooperative members are some of the many obstacles that prevent cooperatives to scale up innovative practices. The strength of COOPERHAF lies in its birth from the union movement FETRAF-SUL allowing its practice to be adopted to scale throughout the country in 13 states in the North East, North and South of Brazil. This alliance proved to be an alternative to urbanisation and retain the dynamism of the rural areas whilst employing various state designed tools from the federal programme Minha Casa Minha Vida. The passion and fellowship animating the movement come hand in hand with a strong, intelligent and very proactive leadership, bringing forward proposals to the government and bringing small but real changes in the lives of millions such as Hence, families join the programme for more than a house. Food security and self-consumption, access to credit and competitive and sustainable development of their properties are also part of COOPERHAF training to enhance their capability. But this is a movement and an approach that also faces difficulties in its scaling up perhaps less on the mobilisation side but more on the design that its technicians propose in terms of housing, particularly with indigenous populations in the North. Technical assistants are exploring various solutions in bio-construction and affordable passive housing elements that could be integrated to house designs offered to families but a consensus is hard to establish with private sector partners (especially local Caixa banks) willing to lend to families that only employ certified models. Providing housing solutions for indigenous populations is an equal challenge on which COOPERHAF is currently learning, having failed to accommodate viable solutions. Its technical arm COOPERTEC is leading on the sustainability of the models, trying to push forward the use of local materials and ancestral techniques.
COOPERHAF did not invent any design or material, but a social technology that organise and catalyses various sparks of energy into a very loud political machinery. It facilitates the relations between the state, the private banks, the syndicates and the farmer. It translates information and brings suitable packages to specific income levels. More than that, it keeps the stamina in the movement through a permanent dialogue and a constant innovation in how to use demagogic state programmes into real propositions and in such, changes the system from within. This is rural planning.